Trying to interview artist Justin Parr and chef Robbie Nowlin at the same time was a feat in not letting the chat devolve into a love-in. These guys have serious platonic crushes on each other. Their mutual respect and giddy camaraderie helps when planning Hot Wells’ first public dinner, a Harvest Feast that will welcome several hundred to the ruins of one of San Antonio’s first resort hotels.
For those unfamiliar, Hot Wells Hotel & Bathhouse has been reinvented several times over. First used for the nearby springs’ therapeutic benefits, the original hotel burned down and was rebuilt bigger and better in the early 1900s and later used as a trailer park and motel. A fire in 1998 destroyed the building before developer James Lifshutz took over the three-acre site a little more than a decade later. Parr, owner of Fl!ght Gallery in Blue Star, entered the picture when he asked Lifshutz if he could have a garden on the Hot Wells property.
“I’ve been there for two years in a shipping container that my friends and I built up to code,” said Parr, 33. “I love seeing things grow and being able to walk outside, pick some heirloom tomatoes, some basil—the food is still alive when you eat it.”
The avid gardener eventually became good friends with Nowlin, who’s spent time at Omni La Mansion’s Las Canarias, The French Laundry and in Jason Dady’s The Lodge. The idea of cooking for the masses at Hot Wells started growing and in 2013, Nowlin invited a few chefs to help prepare an eight-course dinner for 60 guests during a private event last summer that used part of Parr’s garden bounty.
The success of the first dinner sparked an interest in a bigger affair. This year’s Harvest Feast will be open to the public and Nowlin, Parr and Hot Wells Conservancy’s Cindy Taylor are working on making sure the fundraiser runs smoothly. Or as smoothly as it can while having more than 17 chefs, each with their own tent, a food truck and several bar stations.
“I had never rented Port-a-Potties before this,” laughed Nowlin.
As for the lineup, expect to find Christopher Lara (Las Canarias), Stefan Bowers (Feast), Ernie Estrada (Ostra), Mark Weaver (Jason Dady Restaurant Group), Zach Lutton (Zedric’s), Brandon McKelvey (Say She Ate), Jesse Perez (Arcade), Zach Garza (The Fruteria) and Jeff White (Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden), along with cocktails by Javier C. Gutierrez and Joseph Hernandez (Boulevardier Group).
Attendees will also find tents for NAO, Rosella Coffee Co., Houston’s Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar—who will be serving up her lauded French macarons—and a still-unnamed secret chef who’s flying in for the night.
Chefs will draw inspiration for their bites from Parr’s 2,000 square-foot garden, where he’s grown heirloom tomatoes and watermelon, red, yellow and white onions, carrots, fennel, Swiss chard (Weaver already called dibs on this particular ingredient) and a bevy of herbs including thyme, sage and basil.
“I planted a lot of stuff with these guys in mind … seasons are so wacky, so things are kind of surprising as to what works and what doesn’t. Every year I have a bumper crop of blank,” Parr said. He’s also learned where to not plant any garden beds, namely near the river where temperatures cool dramatically enough to freeze most crops.
Guests will be given free reign to check out the space, wander alongside Parr’s gardens and learn about the area’s appeal, which Nowlin succinctly describes as “beautiful, dilapidated, sexy and really weird.”
Funds from the event will go toward the Conservancy and the ultimate goal of turning the area into a county park where San Antonians can learn about the history of Hot Wells.
“I’ll get to stay on the property, but it’ll turn into this great place to go with lots of gardens and life and where people can learn how to be a little more sustainable,” Parr said.
Hot Wells Harvest Feast
$125 per couple
6-9pm Weds, June 18
5503 S Presa